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Iraq: Aid Agencies Press Donors To Fund War-Relief Preparations

International aid agencies say they are unable to adequately prepare for a war in Iraq because donor countries are reluctant to contribute funds for a conflict many states still hope won't happen. Now, last-minute efforts are under way to break the deadlock.

Prague, 17 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- War in Iraq could be just weeks away, but aid agencies say their plans to cope with its aftermath are being slowed by the reluctance of many donor countries to acknowledge that a conflict could happen.

The UN has appealed for more than $120 million to cope with the results of any war. But so far, donor nations have supplied only a fraction of that money. UN officials say the U.S. has contributed some $15 million and promised another $40 million, while other nations have given around $1 million.

The reluctance to contribute is mostly among governments that oppose any U.S.-led military action in Iraq. These nations fear that preparing for the aftermath of a war only heightens the sense that war is inevitable. Many governments have called for extending the UN inspections process to disarm Iraq peacefully, despite warnings from Washington and London that time for inspections is running out and that a decision on using force is weeks, not months, away.

In an effort to break the funding deadlock, the Swiss government organized a major conference over the weekend to bring together international aid experts and government officials from numerous donor countries.

The two-day meeting in Geneva, which ended yesterday, heard aid officials starkly warn that they do not have the money to deal with an Iraq war. They say lack of preparation could mean a humanitarian crisis.

RFE/RL spoke today with conference organizer Walter Fust, who heads the Swiss government's Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. The Swiss government feels particularly involved in the issue because several of the world's largest relief organizations have their headquarters in Geneva, including the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Red Cross.

Fust said the weekend meeting called attention to three main problems holding up funding to relief agencies. He listed the problems this way: "Some donor countries think they do not want to disburse money because they could be considered as looking at the war as not being avoidable. And the other ones think that they cannot invest in something before it happens." He continued: "And a number of countries do pledge money to commit support, but they don't do the disbursement in adequate time."

Fust said aid experts at the meeting stressed that Iraq's population is particularly vulnerable to a conflict because 60 percent of the population is already dependent on food distribution through the UN-approved oil-for-food program.

He said aid agencies need now to stockpile food and other essential equipment on Iraq's borders, such as shelters and medicine, to be ready for emergency use. "The essentials are the stockpiling of emergency kits, of certain foodstuffs, but especially materials for shelter in case the number of internally displaced people would increase and seek refuge on the other side of the border," he said.

The UN has estimated that a conflict could displace as many as 2 million Iraqis and that up to 1.5 million more might seek asylum in neighboring countries.

Among those attending the Geneva meeting were experts from 21 aid agencies and 29 governments. All the countries neighboring Iraq sent representatives. Aid officials said it was the first time Iraq's neighbors have met with relief agencies and donor nations to discuss how to cooperate if there is a war.

Baghdad was not invited to send representatives because organizers did not want to "politicize" the event.

The United States also did not take part in the conference. News agencies say that U.S. officials feel UN agencies are making adequate preparations and that it was unclear how the Geneva meeting would help. The Geneva meeting followed a separate closed-door UN Security Council meeting last week on the humanitarian consequences of a possible war.

Washington is reported to be privately coordinating its own plans for humanitarian relief in Iraq with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, but few details of the cooperation are known. U.S. and UN officials say that the American military is planning to handle initial relief efforts in the wake of a U.S.-led attack, then gradually hand over responsibility to international relief organizations. The U.S. is said to be already storing food and medicine in Italy and Kuwait for distribution as needed.

Reuters reported recently that the Bush administration notified key U.S. congressional committees last week that it would fund the initial American relief operation with approximately $100 million from various U.S. government aid programs.

The U.S. administration is expected to include additional funds for humanitarian assistance in a multibillion-dollar emergency spending bill that Bush would send to Congress if a war begins.